A nation of powerless workers and inequality
The name Margaret Thatcher is one that resonates with more or less every single person the UK. It is met with scoffing or near hatred by most working class and a sense of pride and ‘Britishness’ with others. The connotations of the stern and confident female leader is enough to make any Conservative Party supporter weak an the knees and think of the good old days. The days when LGBTIQ+ rights in the classroom were silenced and we used excessive force against Argentinian navy ships to install British pride. Let’s face it, they’re certainly not getting the Iron Lady 2 with Theresa May who is as strong and stable as mercury at room temperature but just as ‘likeable’ to the majority of the working class.
The discussion of having a statue of Thatcher erected outside Westminster has gone on for sometime now. It seems to have surfaced again more recently with supporters across the political spectrum. I understand she was the first female Prime Minister but I don’t feel that justifies being set in stone, or in iron with a large swinging handbag as some doting commentators have joked, especially since we are all standing on the monument to Thatcherism. We stand in country with a welfare state that is being decimated, bureaucratically alienated from it’s users and stigmatised by the right wing press and the ‘just about managing’.
We live in a country with a shameful social housing sector which was sold off for state profit with Maggie’s ‘vote winning’ right to buy scheme. Yes this allowed many working class people to own a property but it has residualised social housing and saw the decline of the desire-ability of housing estates once sought after under state ownership. I could go on and on about other ideological policies that inflicted harm on the working class people of the UK in the 1980’s but discussing the Poll Tax needs it’s own blog or political essay.
When Thatcher came into power in 1979 she had won to fight the unions. The ‘winter of discontent’ had triggered a political shift to Conservatism and she brought her ‘traditional school teacher’ attitude to politics. A strong woman ‘of the people’ to take on the male domination of Trade Unions who were, in Thatcher’s opinion, scuppering the UK’s productivity and holding public services to ransom. The planned and aggressive butchering of trade union rights through the plethora of legislation passed transformed employment relations in this country. Simultaneously her government went on to sell off public utilities including coal mining, gas providers and water.
The ideological assumption was that a competitive market would improve service delivery, keep costs down and the productivity in these industries would be improved; look how that has worked out. This was a turbulent time for manufacturing as a whole and the working class communities right across the country. The miner strike of 1983/84 is a prominent memory and artefact in history of how aggressive and ideological Thatcher’s regime was in empowering employers and weakening trade unions and the employees. This whole period of time could be, and actually has, it’s own textbook but fast forward to today we see that ideology played out in favour of Thatcher. The neo-liberal agenda and quest for a free unregulated market was not accidental and was not halted or minimised under 13 years of a New Labour government.
Today where huge industrial estates and other hard industry once stood we see retail parks and leisure parks. Where small independent businesses used to occupy our high streets we see national and multi-national chain corporations occupy those sites which still remain open. In Scotland around 25% of the working population work in the service sector including retail, sales or hospitality. Just under ten percent of Scot’s work in hotels or restaurants. Traditionally the vast majority Scottish workforce was employed in manufacturing, production, energy extraction or manual labour. Some commentators assert the reduction in this type of work is because much more women are now in the workplace, which takes up just over 40% of the today’s workforce, but this is down to the decimation of industry which is echoed in areas like Northern England and parts of Wales.
This is significant because service sector workers tend not to have collective representation or be represented by trade unions; hindering their bargaining power with employers. In fact unions in the UK have seen membership decline massively and only have ‘real’ authority remaining within the public sector. However, public sector trade unions are under attack from Theresa May’s government with the austerity lead public sector pay cap weakening the only strong remaining trade union movement in the UK. In the UK’s service sector is where we see some of the lowest wages, precarious working conditions and low skilled repetitive work. Many of these jobs have face-to-face customer interaction 100% of the time which exposes the employee to high levels of exhausting emotional labour which can lead to burnout.
The precarious types of employment can manifest in zero hour contracts (ZHC) or as ‘self-employed’ style of working with a central employer; referred to as the ‘gig-economy’. If an employee is on a ZHC have no guaranteed amount of working hours per week from their employer. This gives the employer the ability to have the manpower when it is required but scale down and not have pay employees when they’re not needed. This can also make it possible for employers to stop giving hours to employees that don’t ‘fit’ or don’t produce high levels of productivity. Having hours cut or removed completely is common if a staff member is ‘problematic’ or seen to be a trouble maker; meaning the employer holds nearly all the power. This type of working conditions are expected in retail and hospitality and becoming more and more normalised and widely accepted as ‘how it is’ these days. Employees with limited influence or power can do very little and as these jobs are relatively low skilled a disgruntled employee can be replaced relatively easily and quickly.
The gig-economy is a self-employed type of working arrangement with a single employer. This means you’re a worker for that employer but not an employee of them meaning you don’t receive all the same benefits or rights as employees. This is common in the growing courier companies, such as DHL and Hermes, where employees must rent their vehicle, uniforms or even buy the fuel for delivering the parcels. This model of employment is also present in companies such as the taxi firm Uber. This manifests by an app providing drivers with the customer pick ups and have they have their service scored and graded by the customer. The employee can also be monitored centrally by management to ensure their productivity, working hours and even levels of customer service are above targets; set by management. What we now see in the new employment age is employees being controlled by an app on their phone which they require to utilise to gain access to work. The Conservative Government ‘investigated’ these types of employment practices and recently imposed these employees must receive the National ‘Living’ Wage and be entitled to annual leave but they did not address the core issues of power, control and the really precarious nature of the job. In companies that adopt the gig-economy model can revoke the offer of work for that day with no notice or state they are not meeting the required standard of work and not offer work going forward. This cuts out the very lengthy performance management procedure and prevents the employer being taken to tribunal.
These two common manifestations of precarious work have installed uncertainty, in-work poverty and further job degradation and deskilling. The jobs are designed to be as simplified and controlled as possible, often by technology as the first contact ‘line manager’, resulting very little autonomy. It is known that job satisfaction and organisational commitment predominantly comes from autonomous flexible work but in the precarious age of work it’s more profitable to have de skilled, repetitive and highly controlled types of job roles.
So what has this created? What does it have to do with Margaret Thatcher? The answer is a nation of powerless workers and the employer holding most, if not all, of the power. The precarious and low paid jobs occupied by a chunk of the Scottish workforce result in employees essentially being trapped in in-work poverty and uncertain financial position due to having no employment security. In the hospitality sector, where less than 2% of the workforce has trade union membership, this is the kind of working practices that are on offer. In our contemporary labour market, which is amongst the most unequal in the ‘developed’ world, we see cases of CEO’s being paid 125 times more than junior member of staff. We see the need and utilisation of foodbanks increase every month due to in-work poverty and the implementation of the heartless Universal Credit welfare reforms. This is extreme Thatcherism. An unregulated employment market free from collective bargaining and trade union interference. We all live and work in the monument sculpted by Thatcher’s governments ideological ideals, and this monument has been embellished by New Labour and Coalition/Conservative governments that served after her. We don’t need reminded by a glorified statue outside the Palace of Westminster because we are reminded everyday. Reminded that in the sixth largest economy in the world the wealth inequality is scandalous and it is an eye sore. Let’s look at building on that rather than fawning after a Prime Minister that inflicted such social harm on the people she was elected to represent.